Lawyers for two lobbyists accused of conspiring to obtain secret defense information said Friday that they intended to prove that senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, provided the lobbyists with some of the sensitive information.
Ratcheting up their defense against espionage charges, the lawyers, representing former employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, got tentative clearance from U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III to subpoena Rice and three other officials in the case.
It was unclear whether Rice and the other officials would agree to be questioned or to testify. Ellis put off trial of the closely watched case, previously set to begin May 23, until Aug. 7.
The escalating legal battle could redefine the way information is circulated in Washington. The charges are part of a Justice Department crackdown on leaks of classified information that officials say hurt national security. Some interest groups and media organizations say the case could chill their rights under the 1st Amendment.
At a hearing Friday, Abbe Lowell, the lawyer for former AIPAC employee Steven J. Rosen, said the testimony of Rice and the other officials was necessary to show that they also had disclosed sensitive information and that some of the disclosures at the crux of the indictments might have been authorized.
Each of the officials “has real-life dealings with the defendants in this case. They’ll explain what they told Dr. Rosen in detail,” Lowell said. “Day One ... Rice tells him certain information. Day Two
Ellis approved subpoenas for David Satterfield, deputy chief of the U.S. mission to Iraq; William J. Burns, U.S. ambassador to Russia; and retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, in addition to Rice.
Prosecutors disputed the allegation that Rice had improperly leaked information, and opposed the subpoenas. Rice “never gave national defense information” to Rosen, Assistant U.S. Atty. Kevin DiGregory told Ellis.
Rosen and former AIPAC employee Keith Weissman are charged with collaborating with former Pentagon analyst Lawrence A. Franklin to collect secret defense information about the Middle East.
Franklin was sentenced Jan. 20 to more than 12 years in prison for giving classified information to Rosen, Weissman and an Israeli diplomat.
Ellis also approved a defense subpoena for Franklin.
The indictment alleges a conspiracy dating to 1999, including meetings with two other government officials at which secret information was disclosed. Those officials are not charged in the case. Though they are not identified in the indictment, one of them is reported to be Satterfield.
According to prosecutors, Rosen and Weissman assiduously acquired information about a range of secrets, including a sensitive analysis of U.S. policy in Iran. AIPAC fired them last year, saying they acted contrary to the best interests of the organization.
Lowell did not say in court what information Rice and the other officials might have provided, and declined to elaborate afterward.
“This is not a stunt,” he said, leaving the courthouse.
The charges were brought under the 1917 Espionage Act, which has been used mostly to prosecute government employees accused of betraying the nation’s secrets. Ellis has called the case unprecedented and is considering a motion by the defense to dismiss the indictment on grounds that the espionage law is unconstitutional. Such a move would obviate a trial.
Lowell argued Friday that the law infringed on the 1st Amendment rights of lobbyists to petition the government. He said the government’s interpretation of the World War I-era statute would clear the way for prosecutions of journalists who obtained classified information in the course of their reporting.
DiGregory said that Rosen and Weissman had knowingly broken the law and that the case was about stealing rather than speech. Prosecutors recently submitted to Ellis a classified exhibit “demonstrating the willfulness of the defendants’ criminal conduct in this case,” according to a court filing.